How to be more excellent to each other--and yourself
Monday, December 14, 2009
Putting an (arbitrary) value on human life, part 3
Putting an economic value on artists and scientists is a tricky business. You can probably measure the economic impact of their writings or discoveries, but the economic impact of art has a lot more to do with the enjoyment and happiness that people derive from it. As far as I know, there is no correlation between a country's average happiness, and its per capita GDP.
Then there is the problem of the inherent assumption behind the counterfactual, by which I mean the assumption that if Shakespeare hadn't been born, nothing he wrote would exist today. The man we call "William Shakespeare" was a combination of genes and environmental factors. So, I'm going to toss out a few counterfactual scenarios here on how things could have gone:
His parents give birth to a child with the same name and birthday, but different genes, and that child does not grow up to be a playwright.
His parents give birth to a child with the same genes, but because of environmental factors, he never gets interested in writing plays, or is never any good at it. Maybe because his parents name him something like Eustace.
His parents give birth to a child who, despite different genes and/or different environmental factors, still grows up to be a playwright whose works are read for centuries after. This Shakespeare maybe doesn't write exactly the same plays as the one in our world, but they are at least as good, if not better.
In scenarios 1 and 2 above, even though Shakespeare is not a famous playwright, these leaves room in the theater marketplace for someone else to flourish and become a famous playwright, someone like Christopher Marlowe. People use Marlowe as a household name, speak of him with high reverence, and keep single-volume collections of his works within easier reach than the Bible.
The short version of this hypothetical scenario: "If Shakespeare hadn't been born, someone else would have been Shakespeare."
Similar things go for Newton. Each time period has leading scientists, who are often collaborating with each other. If Newton hadn't discovered and modeled the principles of force and motion, or written his laws of thermodynamics... someone else would have. It might have taken a few more years, or a few more decades, but someone else would have. We hear a lot about how Newton and Lebiniz discovered/invented calculus at roughly the same time, so if Newton hadn't existed, we would probably credit it to Leibniz, and we wouldn't have to hear about anyone else discovering it.
I would like to conclude our three part series with this: there are more things things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your economics.